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Will the Academy finally put an end to their shameful snubbing of Martin Scorsese? (Long after the fact.)

Is this Martin Scorsese's year? 
 
Expressing a view held by many cineastes, Jason Ankeny of Allmovie.com calls Scorsese "the most renowned filmmaker of his era" who "virtually defined the state of modern American cinema during the 1970s and 80s," yet Scorsese has not won a Best Director award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

 

There are the obvious reasons, such as the fact that more than 90% of Academy voters reside in Los Angeles, while Scorsese is the quintessential New York filmmaker, and the Academy's lifetime membership, which guarantees that a good portion of the kingmakers will be ten to twenty years behind the curve.  Then there's Oscar's tendency to favor flavor-of-the-moment movies with commercial payback for the industry over ageless art films with mere aesthetic appeal:  Scorsese is joined in his Oscar drought by Alfred Hitchcock, Orson Welles, Stanley Kubrick and Robert Altman.       

 

Though the Oscar statuette was originally referred to as the statue of merit, Oscar predictions are not unlike the run-up to presidential elections, in which substantive comparisons of the nominees is passed over for horse-race speculation on the mind of the Academy. What does a probe inside this mind reveal?  Follow me on a tour of the ghosts of Oscars past.
 
Ambiguity bites

Authenticity is one of Martin Scorsese's trademarks.  Where many lesser filmmakers fall back on implausible plot twists, diversionary romantic threads, or scenes of rigged poignancy to make disturbing subject matters more palatable, Scorsese's most moving narratives are direct and unrelenting, free of sugarcoating for the faint of heart.    

 

Martin Scorsese's first Oscar misfortune was releasing his masterpiece, Taxi Driver, in the year of America's bicentennial.  Coming on the heels of Watergate and a disastrous war that tore the country apart and killed two-three million people in Indochina, three sharp, socially-conscious movies garnered Oscar nominations:  1)  All the President's Men, about two dogged investigative journalists who helped bring down an insidious and corrupt administration; 2) Network, a prophetic examination of the spoonfed infotainment that would soon render television news useless if not downright dumbing-down dangerous; and 3) Taxi Driver, the film to beat all films about urban alienation and one of its then-new by-products - the angry white man who goes postal. 

 

Yet on Oscars night, Rocky, a decidedly middleweight Horatio Alger-tearjerker about an amateur boxer-cum-loan shark of principle (who refuses to take the coat off a deadbeat's back) swept the Best Picture and Best Director awards, against all odds and laws of nature. 

 

Taxi Driverthe Palm d'Or winner at Cannes that features the best performance of Robert De Niro's career, Harvey Keitel as one of the most convincing pimps ever, Jodie Foster as Keitel's teenage whore, a brilliant screenplay from Paul Schrader studded with timeless lines ("All the animals come out at night: queens, fairies, dopers...sick, venal...some day a real rain will come and wash all the scum off the street" and "You talkin' to me?"), an endless stream of colorful and dynamic camera shots, an alternately sultry and chilling soundtrack from old-school master Bernard Herrmann (who died right after he finished the score), is on every best-of list worth its salt, yet it didn't win a single Academy award, and wasn't even nominated in the Best Director, Best Cinematography, or Best Screenplay categories. 

 

Taxi Driver's goose egg and Rocky's coronation were bound together by a bourgeois Academy's unwillingness to acknowledge that the breakneck land of opportunity had its share of casualties, in this case a Vietnam vet named Travis Bickle, just more human flotsam tossed to-and-fro by the endless ripples of imperial overreach. 

 

Taxi Driver's ending sealed its fate.  At the end of Rocky, our beloved and beknighted pugilist personifies the American dream as he stands in the ring bloodied but not beaten, hugging his loyal, kind, angelic girlfriend, and in case the viewer hasn't gotten it by that point, the music swells on cue.  Subtext:  a national pat on the back that anyone in America can make it if they have enough heart (even if they're a few fries short of a happy meal.)

 

The ending of Taxi Driver, on the other hand, was bizarre and open-ended.  Travis Bickle has just killed three men, albeit cockroaches with hardware, in one of the bloodiest scenes on film, yet he comes out a media hero who pals around with the other cabbies as if nothing out of the ordinary has happened.  Is it a happy ending?  An ironic jab at the artificially happy endings Hollywood routinely grafts on to score at the box office?  Is Travis reformed, or will he kill again?  Seeds of doubt leave the Academy cold.           

 

Antiheroes rarely make Oscar history

Scorsese's next contribution to the American film canon was 1980's Raging Bull, based on the life of Jake La Motta, a middleweight boxing champion from the 1940s who brutalized people in the ring and out.  La Motta, played by Robert De Niro, challenges his audience's sympathies from the opening bell.  He talks to his first wife as if she is a servant, then cheats on and leaves her for a 15 year-old blonde from the neighborhood.  For a time it appears that maybe his new love will settle him down, but inevitably La Motta's crazed obsessions lead him to actions so violent and out of proportion that he shatters whatever mixed, if haltingly respectful, image you had constructed of him in your mind.    

 

Scorsese offers us no back story cues into La Motta's animalistic rage, no Storytelling 101 flashbacks to make the audience feel like they can understand, after all, and La Motta shows little capacity for understanding himself or the pain he has caused. 

 

Once out of the ring, La Motta gains a lot of weight, tells bad jokes, and flirts with underage women at his night club.  Only at the very end of the movie is there any sense that he realizes the mistakes he has made, and even then you're not so sure.

 

Raging Bull, which like Taxi Driver has a 100% score from the critics at rottentomatoes.com, is often referred to as the best film of the 80s,but at Oscar time the only victors were Best Actor Robert De Niro (who gained 50 pounds to play the middle-aged La Motta) and Thelma Schoonmaker, Martin Scorsese's long-time editor. 

 

1980's big winner was Ordinary People, an honest and well-made movie with less verve.  Unlike Raging Bull, Ordinary People has a protagonist (Conrad) that anyone can sympathize with:  he is an introverted kid who is tormented because he has witnessed the death of his reckless older brother (who he looked up to) in a boating accident, which has saddled him with feelings of loss and guilt (because he survived) that are exacerbated by a distant mother who was very attached to her oldest son, and a sunny father who can't put everything back together again. 

 

Conrad's suffering is plain for all to see.  Where La Motta is an old school male whose pain and confusion are projected in violence, Conrad is a thoughtful, sensitive soul who feels and cares deeply, too deeply, and even agrees to see a psychiatrist to try to get his head together.  By the end of Ordinary People, the psychoanalytic roots of all the family's problems have been completely explored and explained, which, along with a postcard ending, proved comforting to Oscar voters.

 

The Importance of Being Earnest

In the late eighties, Scorsese took on a project perfectly suited to his talents and background:  an adaptation of Nicholas Pileggi's Wiseguy, a non-fiction book about mobsters in 1960s and 1970s New York. 

 

From the trunk slammed shut in the opening scene punctuated by the line "I always wanted to be a gangster," Goodfellas leaps off the screen with angular, hypercaffeinated camera shots, crisp dialogue, gallows humor and pitch-perfect characterization, down to the most minor characters.

 

Scorsese's tour de force won both Best Picture and Best Director at the British Academy Awards, the New York Film Critics Circle, the L.A. Film Critics Association, and the National Society of Film Critics, yet the Academy handed Goodfellas just one Oscar, to Joe Pesci for Best Supporting Actor. 

 

The big problem with Goodfellas, in Academy groupthink, was the lack of redeeming characters (though the fellas were so named for their camaraderie and loyalty to each other) and themes, the main one being that a life of crime can be a surer way to the American dream than the hallowed ground of sweat and toil and sacrifice.

 

1990's big winner was first-time director Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves, an ambitious, epic Western with rich vista shots, a leisurely pace, and a soaring musical score.  Historically and politically the film has much to offer, as the blood of Indians is invisible in American history textbooks, and is so at odds with the bullshit beacon of freedom and democracy narratives spouted by the right and too often taken at face value. 

 

On the other hand, the film has its drawbacks, including crude dualities (cartoon-like, uncivilized white men opposite archetypal wise old Indian tribesmen), hokey symbolism (Costner's relationship with the unusually friendly wolf, who is later carelessly shot by an evil white man), and, unlike Goodfellas, which finished strong, Dances leaks air so bad over the last thirty or forty minutes that you're lucky to be awake when Costner escapes with his squaw at the end. 

 

Costner, whose next directorial venture was the spectacular flop Waterworld, deserves accolades for bringing these subjects to light for a mainstream audience, but film awards are supposed to be given out for bravura filmmaking, not overdue history lessons, right?   Not necessarily.

 

Penance?

This year, Martin Scorsese's The Departed is nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director (Scorsese's 6th nomination), the latter of which looks like a good bet, if not a slam dunk.  In the months leading up to the Oscars, Scorsese has built a tremendous buzz with 14 Best Director wins for The Departed already, including a Golden Globe and The Directors Guild award, which almost always foreshadows an Oscar win, though in lacking a black-and-white good guys-and-bad guys frame or a focus-grouped heart-tugging ending (if not a clever ending), it's unlikely The Departed will win Best Picture. 

 

As a long-time Scorsese fanatic, I'm happy to see the acclaim, and am rooting for my favorite living director to finally get Hollywood's imprimatur, yet the sudden avalanche of awards feels misplaced, like the Nobel given to Gunter Grass forty years after he wrote the seminal The Tin Drum, or the 8 Grammy awards bestowed on Carlos Santana in 2000 for an album that was but a pale and trendy ghost of the early, great Santana albums.

 

While Scorsese deserves commendation for being so productive into his sixties, his output since Goodfellas has lacked a certain je ne sais quoi that even his second-tier pre-Goodfellas movies like The King of Comedy, After Hours, and The Last Tempation of Christ had.  It's hard to work up the excitement for Scorsese releases these days that one does for upcoming works by director Alexander Payne (Election, Sideways) or screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind).  

 

The Departed is a slick, entertaining mainstream movie with a spring in its step, a great cast, and the usual kinetic Scorsese camerawork, but unlike Scorsese's smaller, more personal movies from back in the day, which spotlighted fully human oddballs and interesting characters, the dramatis personae of The Departed are secondary to the storyline, which is so drawn out and convoluted that it's hard to care by the end. 

 

Where Scorsese's best films can be mined repeatedly for riches, The Departed can be fully absorbed in a single viewing.  Once you put the plot together, toward the very end, there are few subtleties or mysteries to be found. 

 

There are worse ways to spend an evening, like, say, paying ten dollars to watch 95% or more of the other mainstream movies in any given year, but, if Scorsese wins Best Director, it will be hard not to conclude that Oscar's Johnny-come-lately voters are just making up for their shameful oversight of his earlier masterworks. 

 

In the end, a statue of merit award would be at least a small personal triumph for Martin Scorsese, a lifelong film historian, as well as a sign that maybe there is some design, some justice, to the universe, but Scorsese's real merit will shine through when his organic, character-driven narratives, arresting camera eye, snappy dialogue, knife's-edge editing and brutal honesty are reincarnated in the works of future filmmakers for whom awards ceremonies are nothing next to art for art's sake.       

 

 

 

   

 

 

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